Looking for the Real First Families of Virginia

Looking for the Real First Families of Virginia
Martha Washington: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One week


When people talk about “first families” of any community, state, or nation, they usually are referring to wealthy families of long standing who exercise considerable power and authority simply by existing.  And such families are, in America, almost always white.  In this lesson, we are going to look at the real first families of the colony of Virginia—the native Americans, or Indians, that greeted the white folks when they arrived—a bit late!


Students who participate in this lesson will learn about eight or more Indian tribes in Virginia, their history, their contributions to contemporary life, and their trials and tribulations at the hands of European settlers.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; PowerPoint presentation program or art supplies for posters.


1.  Begin this lesson by showing a map of Tidewater Virginia (below), and noting that many Indian tribes take their names from the rivers or other waterways on which they lived. Divide the class into five groups, each of which will research Virginia’s First Peoples’ experience from the 1600s until today.
2.  Each group will research the experiences of First People in a single century—1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and today.  They will all have several kinds of maps to help them identify where in the colony or state a particular tribe of Indians were located (or were moved).  The first is the map of Tidewater Virginia; the second is a map of five regions in the state (Coastal Plain, or Tidewater; the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Valley and Ridge, and the Appalachian Plateau); and the third is a map of Virginia’s Rivers and Streams, also organized in five (someone different) regions. They will also have a website on the Virginia Indian language groups and where they were found.
3.  As students conduct their research, they should pay attention to the following questions:

  • What is the name of the tribe?
  • Where does its name come from and/or mean?
  • To what larger language or culture group does the tribe belong?
  • Where is the tribe found?
  • What has been the tribe’s experience over time?
  • Is the tribe one of the eight current “official” Indian tribes of Virginia?
  • What interesting cultural, anthropological, or social information have you discovered about this tribe?

4.  When the research is complete, students in each group should prepare either a PowerPoint presentation on the First Peoples’ experiences in their century, or a poster that displays the findings they have accumulated.  Included in either type of presentations should be dates, maps, names, etc.
5.  The lesson can be concluded on a day of sharing when each group presents its knowledge to the rest of the class.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by having students study other tribes of larger language groups, e.g., the Algonquin.

Sources & Resources:


Egloff, Keith, and Woodward, Deborah, eds. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Richmond, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1992.


Map of Tidewater Virginia Rivers, Lakes, and Major Towns

The Regions of Virginia

Virginia Rivers and Streams

Virginia Indian Language Groups 

Virginia's First Peoples: Meet the Tribes (video)

The Virginia Indians: Meet the Tribes Activity Book

Virginia's First Peoples: History

Virginia's First Peoples: Culture 



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.